Roxana Geambasu Named Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow

Jun 19 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Photo: Bruce Hemingway

Protecting privacy in today’s data-driven world is a key goal for Computer Science Assistant Professor Roxana Geambasu. For her groundbreaking work to fight what she describes as “aggressive data collection” in this growing age of mobile and cloud computing, Geambasu has recently been selected as a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellow. The prestigious award is given to early-career scholars who are engaged in state-of-the-art computing research and have the potential to make significant advances in the field. Geambasu is just one of seven professors who have been awarded the annual fellowship, and the first to receive it at Columbia Engineering.

“I am extremely honored,” says Geambasu, who also is affiliated with the University’s Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering. “It is an amazing recognition to be among the very select set of faculty who have been awarded this award since its inception in 2005.”

Each faculty fellow receives a cash award plus access to other Microsoft resources such as software, invitations to conferences, and engagements with Microsoft Research. Geambasu joins a total of 66 leading academic researchers who have been awarded the fellowship to date.

Geambasu works at the intersection of distributed systems, operating systems, and security and privacy. Her research aims to solve problems that affect billions of users who provide their personal information online without understanding what happens to their data without their knowledge or control.

“My goal is to forge a new world in which web services are designed from the ground up with privacy in mind, and where users are more aware of the privacy implications of their online actions,” says Geambasu. To this end, she and her collaborators have been busy developing new tools and systems to tackle complex privacy issues.

For one, their new system, dubbed xRay, reveals the various ways in which web services leverage users’ personal data to customize service, target ads, or adjust prices. “This system will increase the web’s transparency and provide much needed checks and bounds for web service behavior,” explains Geambasu. “For example, xRay will tell users which emails are being used to target which ads in Gmail, or which searches are used to differentiate which prices on Orbitz.”

Her team also is developing Synapse, a system for robust and transparent data sharing between web services. “Currently, the methods for data exchange and integration are extremely obscure, ad-hoc, and not at all privacy sensitive,” notes Geambasu. “Synapse provides a clean data integration infrastructure that promotes transparency and the control of information sharing, in addition to other important features coveted by web services, including ease of use, strong semantics, and low cost.”

The Microsoft fellowship will allow Geambasu to increase funding for her students and research, further helping her turn her innovative ideas into reality. For Geambasu, there is much work to be done in the area of privacy and security in response to the deluge of data.

“On one hand, this data-driven world brings enormous opportunities to enhance everyday life and society in general,” she says. “We all enjoy great music and movie recommendations, all of which are done by mining our and other users’ data. On the other hand, the data’s great value has led to incredibly aggressive data collection and often irresponsible uses of the data. If we are not careful, this beautiful world will soon turn into an Orwellian breeding ground for data misuse and improper practices. My work aims to prevent that while, hopefully, not disturbing the advantges of the new world.”

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